Battlestar Galactica draws a lot from the power of one-to-one interpersonal relationships, and that’s on display in full force in this week’s two episodes, “Water” and “Bastille Day.” Otherwise, these episodes don’t have a lot in common, to be perfectly honest—the former is an intense exploration of identity for Sharon Valerii, a.k.a. “Boomer,” and the people who care about her; the latter is an episode-bounded prison riot. In my opinion, “Water” is a much stronger episode on the whole. As valuable as the adventures on the Astral Queen become later on in the series, it doesn’t land in quite the same way as the events of “Water”—mostly because the audience is meeting Tom Zarek for the first time, and what he’s doing is threatening everyone else in the show we’ve begun to hold dear. I find myself more impatient with the storytelling of “Bastille Day” than I do with “Water”—the latter seems to last much longer than the former, even though they are the same length.
But I know that’s because I’m biased: I’m much more invested in the story of Boomer, especially at this stage of the series, than I am in Tom Zarek, who feels slightly shoehorned into the story. There are already so many characters in Battlestar Galactica that I’m resistant to the idea of caring about another one—especially one that makes such a terrible first impression.
What ends up salvaging Zarek—and the entire Astral Queen storyline—is the show’s decision to make the episode focus on Lee, with Zarek as merely the lens for the younger Adama’s character. (I’m all for every character having their day in the sun, but making this episode really about Zarek would have been a little too soon for what is effectively the third episode of a series. And fortunately, Zarek gets his moments of character development a bit later in the series.) As it is, Zarek offers a glimpse of one fundamental side of humanity warring against whatever Lee is bringing to the table—and it forces what has been up till now a relatively bland hunky character to make a few tough decisions.
And Lee’s story—much like Boomer’s—is told through the select and careful sequence of one-on-one conversations. In fact, Lee’s storytelling starts in “Water,” and then crests in “Bastille Day”: He talks to his father, who thinks three days is enough time to stop caring about destroying a civilian ship. He talks to President Roslin, who tells him she still cares, and makes him her advisor. He tells his father that (off-screen), and then follows up in “Bastille Day” trying to mend relations. His father tells him he needs to pick a side. It’s a lot of being Told A Thing, of being stoic and doing what he’s told, as he carries out his thankless job of liaising between these two strong personalities. Even when he faces both of them at the same time, which happens twice in “Bastille Day”—once at the beginning of the episode, once at the end—he’s kind of the tennis ball being batted back and forth between the two of them. And clearly that one-to-one relationship dynamic is another extremely important one in the series, too.
In the midst of all this, it’s kind of amazing how little personality Lee’s given, despite Jamie Bamber making the most of his square jawline and brooding stares. It’s a deliberate result of his junior status, and part of the character the show’s drawing for him—the company man with some principles that get bottled up and then expressed in ways that are largely hunky in nature but otherwise mostly irrelevant. So Lee finally making some decisions in “Bastille Day”—coming off a few fantastic scenes across Zarek—is a huge moment for the character, even though it feels a little high-school debate at times.
In some ways, “Bastille Day” is more interesting to examine than “Water” because in an episode with necessarily less emotional resonance, it’s fascinating to see just how well the show’s structure keeps the episode afloat. The scaffolding is comprised of those one-on-one relationships the episode-bounded adventure—both episodes today, and many episodes of Battlestar Galactica, are built around that structure. In other ways, “Water” is maybe one of the most important episodes of this season, in a way “Bastille Day” can’t really get to. Because while “Bastille Day” opens up the idea of elections, which punctures holes in the fleet’s and even our own ideas of how and why Adama and Roslin derive their power, “Water” creates an intense tension between just one character’s multiple natures—and her relationship with a human man, of course.
But there’s my bias again, because Boomer’s relationship with Chief Tyrol is one of my favorites in the series—it’s immediately fun and sexy in the miniseries, as sparks fly between the two of them, poorly disguised as fighting. And once the audience discovers Boomer is a Cylon, it becomes, rather romantically, tragic and doomed in a matter of moments—in this very episode, in fact. “Water” moves The Chief and Boomer from some kind of content stasis to distrust and fear—through a process where both of them are faced with hard evidence that she is a Cylon agent that they do their level best to discredit, explain, or ignore. It only kind of works. By the end of the episode, they both know something is very wrong, and the only thing they can think of to move forward is to ignore it for as long as possible—because the alternative is simply unthinkable.
It’s interesting, too, that this episode revolves around the substance of water, which, like sleep in “33,” is a substance that humans derive both their strength and their weakness from. Water is crucial to humanity’s ability to thrive, which means it’s one of those things that we’re crippled without. You can almost see the wheels in the Cylons’ heads turning when they thought up this one, following the events of “33”: If we can’t chase them to death, we can make sure they die of thirst.
And precisely because water has been so important to humanity for so long, it’s such an important substance, symbolically. It’s a substance usually equated with emotions, in Western and Eastern astrology. I described this episode as having the same structure as “Bastille Day” but being more emotionally resonant; essentially, what I mean to say is that it’s full of water.
I was once told that water is, by some measure, the most corrosive substance on the planet, and though that’s not strictly true (given the specific definition of corrosion), it’s an idea that made me rethink the way I think about the substance. We think of water as a giver of life; it’s so ubiquitous and necessary that it’s easy to forget how much damage it causes. Water is the substance that carves out canyons and drowns civilizations. We need it, but it is deadly, too, from mold creeping up the walls to rain washing out roadworks.
But of course, what “Water” is really about is love, and love could be seen as the most corrosive substance on the planet, too, in its own subtle way. It’s so vital that it’s easy to overlook how much horror is done in its name. Certainly in “Water,” love is what encourages Tyrol to cover up Boomer’s guilt. He’s practical and steadfast in every area except her; he can’t help but believe her, even when it makes absolutely no sense to. And as a result, he’s continuing the mission of one of the best-planted Cylon agents aboard the Galactica, one that is regularly jeopardizing the lives of thousands.
Something that’s come up in the last few episodes is how the show frames human frailty as part of the debate on whether or not humanity is worth saving. And that’s why, I think, Boomer’s relationship with The Chief is such a central part of this first run of episodes. They care about each other, and that’s theoretically a “good” thing, but it’s also damning them both to a lot of problems. With The Chief, the problem is pretty simple: This woman can’t be trusted, even if she thinks she can be trusted.
With Boomer, it’s more complicated: This love she feels is a symptom of a struggle between the part of her programming that makes her believe she is human and the part of her programming that makes her, unequivocally, a Cylon. The Cylon overlords (or whoever is making the major decisions, in this murky first part of the series) are particularly cruel to many of their copies—unkinder, sometimes, than they are to the humans they’re destroying. And to be sure, Cylon individuality is a very different concept from human individuality—there are many copies, and even at this early point in the series we know that they seem to share some crucial information with each other.
But all of this is merely intellectual compared to the play of emotions on Boomer’s face as she’s trying to figure out what’s happening to her. I don’t think of Grace Park as being the best actress in this series, and there are times in other episodes where I find her very hard to believe. But rewatching “Water,” she sells it hard. From that first terrified moment where she “wakes up” drenched to the moment in her Raptor when she’s staring at “H2O POSITIVE” and unable to say a word, fingering the detonator that she herself planted under her seat. For all of Six’s flitting in and out of Baltar’s consciousness, it’s Boomer that gives us the first insight into the “humanity” of the Cylon psyche, because she has a human nature that she has to do something with.
That moment at the end of “Water” is tied to a small scene in “Bastille Day” where copies of Six and Five are making small talk about Sharon’s advances with Helo on New Caprica. “She’s good,” he observes. At this point in the series (for new viewers), it’s not totally clear what she’s “good” at, but based on that other copy of Six pushing Helo and Sharon together, the plan includes them getting… closer. But where Five sees it as Sharon sealing the deal, Six sees love, as she would, because some part of her is in love with Gaius Baltar. And Boomer has a little piece of both of these points of view. She feels love, and there is some part of her that knows that is a distraction from the bigger mission.
In fact: One of the supremely weird things about this set of episodes is seeing The Chief and Boomer be in love while watching Helo and Sharon fall in love. It’s as convincing as it needs to be on both counts: Boomer freaking out at Tyrol is the type of thing that quasi-partners do to each other while processing a bunch of feelings—the way she moves from being weirdly angry at him to asking him to comfort her is absolutely on point. And Helo and Sharon are doing that “we’re just friends but awkwardly hugging for a long time!” thing that is filed under “Great Rom-Com Devices Of The Ages.” And in both situations, everyone who thinks they’re human is slowly realizing not everything is quite what it seems—Boomer and Tyrol because of the missing detonators; Helo because he’s still not totally sure why Sharon came back.
Which reveals another of the show’s strengths, couched in the solid foundation of one-to-one relationships—the slow penny drop, rather than the sudden reveal. It works for both the characters and the audience. (Even as a viewer, in the miniseries, discovering Boomer is a Cylon doesn’t immediately convince you that she’s evil, or that she’s working against the fleet.) And aside from the value of shaking up everyone’s preconceived ideas of good, evil, and the Other with a slow and devastating force, the technique also makes for damn good suspense.
Even the camerawork—dutch angles and hand-held filming—create this sense of constantly caged people, either claustrophobically in each other’s faces or unable to quite see anyone else eye to eye. Numerous times characters are literally filmed as if they’re being watched, through surveillance from above or through the mesh of a cage. (I’ve tried to give a sense of that in my screenshots throughout.)
And lest I tip myself over past 3,000 words on the fluid, multiple identities of Sharon Valerii—what’s ultimately so skin-crawling and weird about “Water” is that we really don’t know why Boomer ended up with one more detonator in her bag, or why exactly she planted one underneath her own pilot’s chair in her Raptor. Was there one more target that she didn’t get to? Was it all supposed to be a suicide mission? Did Boomer threaten her programmers with her own death, subconsciously, if they didn’t let her tell Crashdown that she’d found water? Or did Boomer as a Cylon leave herself a detonator as a breadcrumb, hoping that she’d recognize her own handiwork? Breadcrumbs or detonators, Zarek has the right of it: You reap what you sow.
So say we all:
- Original airdates: 1/14/2005 and 1/21/2005 (Fun fact: “33” and “Water” were aired back-to-back.)
- Survivor count: 47,973
- Six theme count: 4
- Adama speech count: 1 (the whole spiel on the militarization of the police, which, dude)
- Rewatching that exchange, coupled with Boomer’s intense internal struggle, it surprised me that this early on in the series, Battlestar Galactica introduced the idea of dissent or complexity within the Cylons—in my first blitz through the series, I don’t even remember that being possible.
- Lee’s great and all, but opening up all of the cell doors at the same time is an insane idea.
- After Boomer wakes up soaking wet, she changes into dress uniform and comes out to the hangar bay. She thinks it’s evening, but Cally tells her it’s morning. Which—is that a slip-up by the production? Presumably if Boomer thought it was evening, she’d have worn her fatigues, because the dress uniform was specifically for the morning visit from the president. Or is the idea that Cylon-fugue-state Boomer knew that she’d need her dress uniform when she snapped out of it? Either way, I wondered about it.
- I used the phrase “full of water” above, which reminded me that I got the idea from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Laertes is speaking over Ophelia’s body.
- There wasn’t quite space to get into this further, but these two episodes seed the beginnings of the strange dynamic between Gaius Baltar and Starbuck. The two of them are total opposites, as I discussed a few weeks ago, which means they’re a perfect recipe for a bad romance. There’s certainly chemistry there, in the sexy cigarette-lighting, their very first scene together. In my first viewing, this pairing drove me nuts. Now I’m finding it interesting just how much these two characters have in common besides being so different—recklessness and a lot of excess sexual energy, mostly.
- Starbuck wears aviators in the briefing room and that whole scene has no reason to exist except that it’s funny and tells you a little more about Tigh’s relationship to Starbuck. Then they drink water later, and Tigh’s an alcoholic, which is a whole thread I do not have space to pick up right now, but hey, it happened.
- Oh, and holy shit, Head Six convinced Gaius to ask for a nuke, after spending so many episodes demurely making out with him and talking about God! The speed with which she turns the tables is incredible. Also, she changes from her red dress to a silver one. How did she do that? Is it because she took a bath? I have questions.
- These episodes are love-triangle hell. Helo/Boomer-Sharon/The Chief; Six/Baltar/Starbuck(/Lee??); Boomer/The Chief/Cally. They’re also a great pair for Adama/Roslin, if that’s your thing.
- And speaking of Cally: She is so freaking fantastic in “Bastille Day”—both her nervy, stubborn brave face and her shift to scared, but resolute. Rape plots are never, like, super fun, but I found it well-handled here—specifically in that it focused on Cally’s story, and not the perpetrator’s. Plus: “You’re not asleep.” “Not anymore.”
- Billy and Dee fighting about whether or not Zarek is a terrorist is pretty great. It’s the most personality we’ve seen from her yet. And her aside to Billy when Cally’s being led away: “She’ll be okay. She’s been trained,” always gives me the shivers. No one should have to be trained for that.
- Not all the books in Adama’s office had cut corners?! I don’t even know what to believe anymore.
- And: “It’s a gift. Never lend books.” Which is truly advice to live by.
- “Never send a pilot to do an ECO’s job.”
- Office of the XO: Just a reminder: “Boomer” is the copy of Eight on the Galactica. “Sharon” is the one on Caprica.
- And now it’s your turn: I spent a lot of time explaining my bias towards Boomer, also known as Cylon copy Eight. Who’s your favorite Cylon copy?